It may, especially if you have a chronic tension-type headache (CTTH), or migraine, according to these two studies:
- After two months of having 3 saunas a week, participants, with tension-type headaches at least 15 days per month, reported the pain was 40% less intense. Because this was a gold standard study (randomised controlled trial, RCT) this is a significant result. They also reported slightly less depression and better sleep than those who didn’t have saunas.1
- In another RCT, chronic migraine patients who were given hot arm and foot baths, with a short ice rub to their head, reported significant decreases in the frequency and intensity of their headaches, alongside improvement in their quality of life.2
Tension-type headaches are the most common form of headache. The pain is steady and on both sides of your head, in contrast, a migraine has throbbing pain and is usually on one side of your head. A headache is called chronic when you have it more than 15 times a month for three months in a row.
What do the studies show?
Two small studies are not much to go on but are in line with my experience. I have often used a hot foot bath to treat headache and it seems to bring relief. At the most recent lifestyle-change program I attended, a patient’s caffeine withdrawal headache was completely relieved by a hot foot bath while in the infrared sauna. So yes I think these studies with only a total of 77 participants, indicate that thermotherapy may help relieve some headaches.
Hydrotherapists had a very detailed list of headaches and suggested treatments. I respect these doctors and think they probably knew what they were talking about, so even though there are few papers, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence for headache treatments.
Why does Thermotherapy relieve headaches?
As with most thermotherapy, we are only guessing. My thoughts are that the regulation of blood flow and blood vessel health probably has an effect on migraine. Then there may be an effect on the nervous system. And my favourite little things at the moment are heat shock proteins which seem to have no end of good effects on the blood vessels in your brain and head.
Stress and lack of physical activity are listed as causes of tension-type headaches. Both of these conditions are often relieved by sauna.
Talk to your Doctor
You will need to check with your GP about the contraindications to thermotherapy (conditions that are a reason to avoid thermotherapy). We also want to check that any lifestyle change we suggest won’t interfere with your other treatment.
So can thermotherapy help your headaches?